#Reviewing Military Readiness: Thinking About the Three Big Questions

Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices, Consequences. Richard K. Betts. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1995.

For each service in the U.S. military, readiness stands as a top priority. The 2018 National Defense Strategy identifies rebuilding military readiness as the first of its priorities. The current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff lists “restoring joint readiness” as one of his key focus areas.[1] In 2017, then Secretary of Defense James Mattis used the concept of readiness to justify requests for increases in funding to the Department of Defense.[2] A focus and prioritization of readiness is not new for the joint force. Every Chief of Staff includes readiness as a key theme in their annual posture statements delivered to Congress.

It is imperative that military professionals understand the term readiness. Richard K. Betts, in his book Military Readiness aids that understanding by expanding the framing of readiness as a series of choices and consequences for policy makers, similar to how military commanders frame decisions and risk. Paramount to readiness is the choice between operational and structural readiness. This article will examine the term, how the joint force applies readiness, and propose additional and alternate methods of readiness vis-à-vis recently published strategic guidance.

Operational and Structural Readiness

Current doctrine defines readiness as “the ability of military forces to fight and meet the demands of assigned missions.”[3] Richard Betts describes readiness as “a measure of pre-D-Day status of the force” and “a force’s ability to fight with little or no warning.”[4] There are further meanings to readiness, but most are not germane to the discussion.[5]

Operational readiness is “the capability of a unit/formation, ship, weapon system, or equipment to perform the missions or functions for which it is organized or designed.”[6] The broader lens is structural readiness, which is related to the size of the overall force and composition of the force. Structural readiness is concerned chiefly with how ready the military or service is to conduct its mission.[7] The critical aspect in understanding these two sets of readiness is that choosing one over the other is a choice between capabilities available now and capabilities that will be available in the future.

For example, a brigade that conducts field exercises at the National Training Center may improve readiness in terms of its people and their ability to fight, but at the end of the exercise equipment will be in a lesser state of readiness, requiring repair and maintenance. The same holds true for naval ships and aircraft returning from operational deployment. Conversely, a force that stows all its equipment in anticipation of deployment will lower its operational readiness as they cannot train on said equipment and combat platforms.

Betts’ book, written in 1995, does not account for the current national security paradigm of international relations highlighted by a continuum of cooperation, competition, and conflict. An unexplored aspect of structural and operational readiness is the ability for forces and capabilities to be ready for military operations below conflict, specifically in the competition space with other global powers. With respect to this level of competition, the key is to have enough force ready, but not so much so as to break the bank, or carelessly sacrifice future readiness in the present.

Vehicles for an exercise at the National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, Calif., 2019. (Cpl. Alisha Grezlik/DoD Photo)

Three Questions

 In the pages of Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices, and Consequences, Richard K. Betts lays out three questions military professionals should consider regarding readiness. These questions are paramount to gaining a comprehensive understanding of readiness. Therefore, it is useful to break down each and consider their implications for the current and future joint force.

Readiness for When? Military professionals must define the timeline of when capabilities must be available for a mission. There are not enough funds, strategic lift, or national will to have every unit ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. By answering this question, strategists and those who work on institutional capabilities can determine what capabilities should reside in the reserves and what should reside on active duty.

Reserve and National Guard forces require time to mobilize. Mobilization activities range across individual and collective training, equipment issue, medical and administrative readiness, and movement of combat platforms and other equipment forward.[8] These activities can last months. When designing the force, military leaders must make assumptions on how fast political leadership will decide on mobilization and employment, and the timing of strategic warning.[9] These assumptions inform the resources directed to operational readiness, and the decisions behind structural readiness. When policy makers assume significant time leading into a crisis, a greater percentage of the force can function at lower levels of operational readiness. Combining the assumptions of what type of conflict is most likely, with the expected duration of warning will inform structural decisions on the size and type of the force.

Readiness must not be defined solely on how fast a unit can deploy to a combat zone. Examples of rapid deployments with forces not prepared for the fight range from Japanese naval air power in the Pacific during World War II to the debacle of Task Force Smith during the Korean War and the more recent early rotations of U.S. forces in Iraq. In the former, the Japanese Navy, in a rush to deploy pilots and fighters to fight the American Navy, sent large numbers of inexperienced amateur pilots to the Marianas Islands. The result was a massacre for the Japanese and would be forever known as the Marianas Turkey Shoot.[10] Task Force Smith was ready to deploy from Japan to Korea, but was not combat capable.[11] The force deployed to Iraq in the early 2000s was ill prepared for the counterinsurgency fight it would face, and required rapid updates to doctrine and training, as well as increases in service end strengths. This leads to the understanding that readiness of the deployable or operational force is dependant upon decisions and actions of the institutional force.

Readiness must not be defined solely on how fast a unit can deploy to a combat zone.

Money can be used to build a large force that will deploy slowly over time, or a smaller force that can deploy on a more rapid timeline.[12] This level of commitment informs structural decisions of active, guard, and reserve forces. There is a savings on the placement of capabilities that will deploy late to a conflict which can afford the time to equip and train at the onset of a crisis in the reserve and guard components. Further, within each component, decisions can be made on the level of readiness of each unit. Tiered systems of readiness that prioritize specific units over others is a natural outcome of these choices.

Readiness for What? This question focuses on what type of mission or conflict the military expects to face. Understanding potential adversaries and scenarios is critical to determining how the military should assess the readiness of various units and combat platforms.

Answering “for what” is an aspect of readiness at which the United States excels. For example, the 2017 National Security Strategy details the main U.S. adversaries while offering the military priorities on what type of conflicts to prepare for. Further, each service uses the answers to this question to focus priorities in force structure and training. Strategic leaders and policy makers must make assumptions on what type of conflict the military must be ready to fight.

Answering the “for what” aspect of readiness must expand beyond readiness for the next major war. Indeed, the joint force must understand if it needs to be ready for major combat operations, counterinsurgency, or day-to-day competition with other global powers. Building a force that is only ready for major combat operations against China or Russia in the future is useless if China and Russia choose to use soft power to engage in conflict today. This aspect pulls at another shortcoming of Betts’ book. Just as adversaries counter actions on the battlefield, so too will they counter U.S. readiness choices. In choosing to be ready for major conflict, the U.S. assumes risk in readiness for other military operations. Indeed, having a ready force for conventional operations may deter other nations from building their own conventional force, leading to a choice to confront the United States asymmetrically or not at all. Conversely, choosing to invest in the readiness of capabilities to act in actions below major conflict may incentivize an adversary to invest in conventional military capabilities.

Readiness of What? The military must determine what capabilities are required and the timelines associated with each element of the joint force. Readiness “of what” is tied to “for what.” With a consensus on the type of conflict the military must train for, the services and the joint force can determine which capabilities it must keep on a short string. For example, the joint force maintains capabilities such as the ready brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division as part of the global response force, nuclear armed submarines, and other elements of the nuclear triad on short timelines.

Combined, the three questions lead to assumptions on what type of conflict the military will face and how much strategic warning the nation will have before entering a conflict. Concerning the latter, joint planners often assume the national command authority will set a specific date and announce mobilization. However, the timing of this is uncertain.

Although conceived in 1995 by Betts, these three questions are still applicable today. The questions go beyond the current joint readiness paradigm. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Guide to the Chairman’s Readiness System only asks the second question. Moreover, the three questions cannot be answered independently, especially when budgetary choices and personnel manning decisions might be best conceived as zero-sum. The determination of what capabilities to invest in, or what units to source with people and equipment should reflect the answers to Betts’s three questions.

Choices and Consequences

The current method to assessing a unit’s readiness in the joint force is for a commander to rate his or her unit at a level where “the status of the selected unit resources measured against the resources required to undertake the wartime missions for which the unit is organized or designed (core).”[13, 14] Betts’ Military Readiness provides a lens to see the flaw in this type of analysis. For example, an armor or infantry brigade maintained at the highest level in terms of operational readiness, but unable to deploy within 90 days due to lack of strategic air and sealift is a waste of money and resources.[15]

Photos of an A-10 Thunderbolt II during a close air support training mission during RED FLAG-Alaska 19-2 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, June 19, 2019. (SrA Kristen Heller/USAF Photo)

Readiness is not cumulative, and thus large units cannot measure readiness as a sum of their subordinate parts. At the same time, decisions on when to focus on individual or collective training is the purview of commanders.[16] For example, an army brigade may have all of its platoons and companies trained at their levels, but never have conducted collective training at the battalion and brigade level. The Air Force faces similar choices when allocating time between individual flight training and rotations at Red Flag exercises. Commanders throughout the chain of command continually make choices regarding the levels of readiness they will focus on and what levels they can sacrifice. However, decisions to conduct collective training often occur at a higher level, thus limiting the choices of subordinate commanders. More importantly, it is all too often only higher echelons who have the power and capability to coordinate actions with adjacent units and sister services.

Furthermore, readiness assessments must assume joint service capabilities. An armored brigade combat team relies on strategic air and sealift capabilities to deploy to theater, as well as a host of enablers such as close air support; joint intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and space-based communications. Absent joint force enablers and transportation, said brigade is useless, no matter how much time was spent in operational exercise or performing anticipatory maintenance. In this sense, readiness can be broken down into the military hierarchies of action. This way of readiness thinking allows us to break down the concept into each level of war—the tactical,operational, strategic, and institutional.

Tactical readiness centers on individual units and their ability to execute the mission assigned to them within required time constraints. Operational readiness builds upon the tactical, but through a joint lens. It is the ability of the tactical units to conduct their missions but with the combined readiness of the joint force. These enablers range from strategic air and sealift to fires and sustainment support.[17] Strategic readiness is based on “how well the nation and its armed services have prepared for the right types of threats, and developed the right types of policy instruments to address them.”[18]

Operationally and strategically, the easiest way to be ready is to position forces where they will operate. The 2018 National Defense Strategy proposed a global operating model composed of four layers: contact, blunt, surge, and homeland. Identification of which forces and capabilities reside in each layer should directly link to operational and structural readiness decisions. Forces in one layer may require higher levels of operational readiness to respond quickly. Conversely, forces in other layers may have more time to respond to a crisis, and assume operational risk to build structural readiness.

With respect to strategic readiness, the key ingredient is the posture and composition of the joint force. Having the right capabilities in forward locations such as South Korea, the Middle East, and throughout Europe is paramount to the strategic readiness of the military to respond to threats such as North Korea and Russia. However, as John R. Deni noted, while an armored brigade in Eastern Poland may deter a Russian invasion of a NATO ally, it is “useless against Russian gray zone activities in the electromagnetic spectrum.”[19] This relates directly to the choices of policy makers and military leaders on what type of conflict they wish to be ready for, when they need the capability to be ready, and what capabilities they wish to be ready for said potential or actual conflict.


Readiness is a broad topic. Betts’ Military Readiness makes apparent the shortfalls of current methods for assessing readiness in a U.S. joint force that only asks “ready for what?” Leaders in each service and across the joint force should expand their readiness assessment methodologies to account for the other two questions Betts poses: “Ready for when?” and “Ready with what?” Furthermore, leaders throughout the joint force should break up discussions and evaluations of readiness to address each level of war.

With a high emphasis on readiness in today’s joint force, it is paramount to understand readiness in greater depth. Indeed, a true understanding of the term might provide the intellectual leverage to push back whenever a program or idea is couched within the guise of increased readiness. Understanding the differences between operational and structural readiness, the impacts of choices on where to focus resources, and the underlying readiness assumptions is critical for senior leaders to have informed discussions about tradeoffs with policy makers. This broad understanding provides context behind decisions whether or not to provide resources to various units in the joint force. Time spent reading and reflecting on the implications of readiness at each level of war will develop intellectual firepower on the continuing priority of the joint force.

Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Headers Image: Vehicle in Afghanistan, 2014. (Meghan Dhaliwal/DoD Photo)


[1] Joseph F. Dunford Jr. “Message to the Joint Force from the Chairman.” 2 October 2015. www.dodlive.mil/2015/10/02/message-to-the-joint-force-from-the-chairman/

[2] James Mattis, "Implementation Guidance for Budget Directives in the National Security Presidential Memorandum on Rebuilding the U.S. Armed Forces," Department of Defense, January 31, 2017.

[3] Department of Defense. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. May 2017.

[4] Richard Betts, Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices, and Consequences, (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1995), pp. 40 and 42.

[5] The Congressional Research Service, in a 2017 report identified a number of readiness related terms to include physical readiness, medical readiness, family readiness, dental readiness, and equipment readiness. These latter terms, while interesting in their own right are not germane to the broader readiness discussion.

[6] Russell Rumbaugh. Congressional Research Service. “Defining Readiness: Background and Issues for Congress.” June 14, 2017. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R44867.pdf

[7] Ibid.

[8] Department of Defense. Joint Publication 4-05: Joint Mobilization Planning. 23 October 2018.

[9] Betts, Military Readiness, p. 168

[10] Phillips Payson O’Brien. How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II. (Cambridge University Press 2015).

[11] Betts, Military Readiness, p. 17-18

[12] Betts, Military Readiness, p. 43

[13] CJCSI 3401.02B Force Readiness Reporting. Accessed 31 March 2019 (https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/training/cjcsi3401_02b.pdf?ver=2017-12-29-171240-350)

[14] Our current readiness method assigns a “C rating” to each unit. Within this paradigm, a C-1 rating is the highest level of readiness, and a C-5 rating is the lowest

[15] Betts, Military Readiness, p. 247.

[16] Ibid., p. 92.

[17] This definition of operational readiness is strictly in terms of the level of war, and not part of the operational vs structural readiness discussion.

[18] Jason Forrester, Michael O’Hanlon, and Micah Zenko. “Measuring U.S. Military Readiness.” National Security Studies Quarterly. Volume VII, Issue 2 (Spring 2001).

[19] John R. Deni. “Strategic Insights: Making Good on the NSS and NDS: Competing with Russia in Europe and Beyond.” Strategic Studies Institute. (20 March 2018). Retrieved from https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/index.cfm/articles/Making-Good-On-The-NSS-NDS/2018/03/20